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Julia Molony: We can't just turn moral indignation on and off

An Irish man has just been sent to jail for three months in Dubai for fooling around in the back of a taxi. Sounds pretty extreme, right? But weirdly there's a self-righteous little faction of public opinion that seems mighty happy to see him punished.

Most of those wagging their fingers are probably hypocrites. Who among us can honestly hold their hand up and say that, on grounds of decency, they have never EVER indulged in a bit of back-seat heavy petting? Not many, I'd say.

Sure, Conor McRedmond was in Dubai when he was arrested for his back-seat antics with British recruitment consultant Rebecca Blake. And in the United Arab Emirates, where stringent decency laws apply, anyone but a wilful fool would fail to watch their behaviour in public. But applauding his conviction under a regime where sex outside marriage is illegal seems rather strange.

McRedmond and Blake were accused of having sex in the back seat of a taxi. They both vehemently denied the charge. And indeed, DNA evidence supported their claim that no actual intercourse took place. Nonetheless, the pair were found guilty of "breach of honour with consent," committing "an indecent act in a taxi," and consumption of alcohol in public, to which they had pleaded guilty.

They have both been released on bail pending an appeal in January.

The incident in question is one of a recent spate of public decency cases in Dubai, where tourists and members of the ex-pat communities have run foul of the local laws.

Now they will both serve three months in jail, pay a fine and then face immediate deportation from the country.

To be fair, it doesn't make pleasant reading, to hear about an Irish person arrested after a 10-hour bender. We're sensitive about our appearance on the global stage and it feels bad to see evidence that we've exported the more unsavoury aspects of our binge drink culture abroad. It's a reflection of the fact that we feel deeply conflicted about our own boozy habits – joining in with gusto at home, while also feeling deeply ashamed whenever anyone elsewhere in the world catches us at it.

It's not as if our reputation internationally is flying high at the moment anyway. The usual state of grace a traveller on an Irish passport enjoys has taken a bit of a blow in the aftermath of the tragic death of Savita. I'm going to India next month, and I'm already wondering whether I'll be greeted with some questioning looks when passing through immigration.

We hate it when our good name is sullied in the eyes of our neighbours. Now, more than ever, we could do without the bad pr. And part of the outbreak of finger-wagging in the direction of McRedmond comes from embarrassment. We feel he's let us all down by getting stocious and making a holy show of himself in front of the disapproving citizens of the UAE. In general, we prefer the British to take the rap for that sort of behaviour.

To be fair to McRedmond, it was an easy enough mistake to make, though. The famed Dubai cocktail culture, with its all-you-can-drink promotions and lively nightlife aimed at ex-pats, convincingly belies the country's decidedly un-libertarian laws.

But we should beware the moral relativism behind the desire to excoriate McRedmond for behaviour in Dubai that would raise no more than a smile and a shoulder slap back at home. No one would applaud cultural insensitivity, of course. It would be nice if every westerner living in Dubai could be smart and respectful enough to know where to draw the line. But feeling ashamed of someone's behaviour is different to supporting the notion that they deserve to go to jail.

Let's not forget that barely six months have passed since many of us were motivated into righteous indignation when Pussy Riot were jailed in Russia, also on grounds of obscenity for their behaviour inside a church. True, Pussy Riot's aims were political, whereas McRedmond's aims were rather less noble, and more in the line of a bit of frottage. But either we believe that imprisonment for indecency is something fundamentally acceptable, or we don't. We can't chop and change according to how fashionable and popular the cause is.

Sunday Independent